When it comes to inclusive education in the province, school boards here in Rainy River District are faring better than most.
At least that was the opinion of experts during a workshop here last week on Effective Education Advocacy, hosted by Community Living Ontario and Community Living Fort Frances and District.
Gordon Porter, director of Inclusive Education Canada, said inclusive education is an issue in many parts of Canada, including urban Ontario.
“Here in Northwestern Ontario, geography kind of mitigates the challenge in you have a small and rather scattered population, so it’s not easy to construct segregated alternatives,” he explained.
“It’s more natural to use the local schools than it is in highly urban areas,” he reasoned.
Kimberley Gavan, with Community Living Ontario, noted of the 72 school boards in the province, only two or three have an inclusion policy.
Both the Rainy River District School Board and the Northwest Catholic District School Board have documents in place supporting equity and inclusion.
“The Rainy River District School Board will serve staff, students, and families in diverse communities by imbedding the principles of fairness, equity, and inclusive education into all aspects of its operations, structures, policies, programs, procedures, guidelines, and practices,” notes board policy 2.67.
The local Catholic board, meanwhile, has a procedure in place to “extend, develop, and implement strategies to actively engage students, parents, families, and the wider community in the review, development, and implementation of initiatives to support and promote equity and inclusive education.”
Gavan noted six or seven school boards in Ontario still have fully-segregated schools while the majority of schools in the province have segregated classes.
“So in many parts of the province, we are still trying to sell the concept of students studying side-by-side, in spite of all the research,” she stressed.
“Research shows students are better students when they learn alongside kids with diverse needs and learning styles.”
Gavan was pleased to hear there are no segregated classes here in Rainy River District.
“There’s a handful of students who are being brought together because of a commonality of their disability,” she conceded.
“But for the most part, students in Fort Frances are welcomed and included in their local schools.”
Both Porter and Gavan said while the issue of inclusive schools isn’t as prominent here, there still are challenges.
“I understand there are challenges to make inclusion work for kids with behavioural problems,” Porter suggested.
“Kids are still being suspended and expelled because of behaviour—behaviour based on disability often—and so there is still a lot of work to be done,” echoed Gavan.
“But I think Fort Frances is in a good position to reach that tipping point in terms of good inclusive practice of students learning side-by-side, in spite of the challenges.”
Porter, who works all over Canada supporting teachers and educators, as well as parents and families, shared his insight with representatives for local agencies about why inclusive education is important.
He also outlined some of the key principles of how you do it, as well as how to support families as they engage with the school system.
The workshop also addressed the legal and human rights framework that exists in Ontario.
“Our interest is in good education for all children,” stressed Gavan. “Often kids who have a disability, there are different expectations about their learning and about what they are going to get out of school.”
But she reiterated it’s important for all students to learn together.
“What we’re really hoping is that kids get really good, solid education opportunities that help them to think about what’s possible for their future,” Gavan said.
“If we’re learning alongside one another, we understand how to be together,” she reasoned. “We learn what accommodations each of us need to bring the best out in one another.
“So we think it’s really important for kids to be learning side-by-side with their peers, and that there are really good accommodations and supports for kids to do that.”
Gavan noted many of the people at last week’s workshop accompany families to school meetings and she wanted to help them think about their roles a little more broadly.
“What is the family experience, how do you advocate for good inclusive practices, how do you help people work as a team around the student?” she remarked, sharing some of the questions considered during her presentation.
“I think inclusive education is fundamental for students,” agreed Alanna Barr, executive director of Community Living Fort Frances and District.
“It’s about participation with your peers in the classroom, being part of a school community.
“I think Fort Frances is pretty progressive,” added Barr, noting that seemed to be the tone of the group.
Still, Barr said the workshop, which was touring Northwestern Ontario, was an important one to bring to the area.
“It’s enhancing what they already know about inclusive education,” she remarked.
“It’s about getting more experience, more knowledge, and improving access.”